My interactions with nature

Since become disabled, my interaction with nature has changed.  My last couple of blog posts have raised some of the issues that come with this but it has given me an opportunity to reframe how I interact and create new ways which give me a new intimacy.

There are subtle changes in weather which once were easily overlooked – throw on a coat, grab an umbrella and so on – but which now act as a backdrop for the play that is my life.  Rain and electricity don’t mix well, so I have to be aware of this when I’m going out.  The level of precipitation dictates where I go, how I get there and even if I can go out.  Ice and snow and ungritted pavements go about as well as you can imagine.  Then there is the effect of weather on my body itself.  Warmth helps my pain levels, cold does the opposite and worst of all is when days are noticeably warmer than nights and my pain levels flare up.  Hot days stresses out my autonomic system, making me feel faint, breathless and generally yukky.

The way that the weather plays out in my life, on my body, means I am much more aware of it than I once was, much more attuned to it and by extension to the changing of the seasons.  I also find I am more aware of light levels, possibly in part because I tend to spend my morning drinking tea in the same seat.  A seat which faces into the sun as it rises over the houses and then later in the day, it reaches me from the other side, through my kitchen window.

When I am outside, whether its considered wild or not, I struggle to lose myself in my environment in the way that many people speak of doing in the wilderness.  It is not possible to engross yourself in the land around you if you are always scanning for roots and holes and puddles to avoid – this also doesn’t fit with the image of the romantic ideal of nature

“Detailed scanning of the environment is part of disability culture’s everyday adaptation and troubleshooting”
– Elizabeth  A Wheeler

There is, necessarily, a constant adjustment and awareness of the environment, a sensitivity and responsiveness to changes.  In man made worlds, that might be an intimate knowledge of where the drop kerbs are, where the pavements get too narrow for a wheelchair or where the path is in need of repair.  Take that same intense scanning into a more natural space and you will find the intimate relationship now becomes about roots and twigs and soil.  This is not capital N Nature as some people see it, but this is personal and is another model for being in nature.  One that often focuses on the smaller things in the landscape, and in doing so can mean you are attuned to other beautiful aspects such as fungi and leaves.  Back in that man made world, I see the tenacious plants that weave through the cracks in pavements and the feathers that have floated down to the tarmac.  It is a different experience, but different does not mean inferior.

“Disability narratives can widen the emotional repertoire of possible responses to nature”
– Elizabeth A Wheeler

Another way in which I connect to nature in an intimate way is through the birds that visit my bird feeder.  I have predominately house sparrow visitors and have been able to watch the parents rush back and forth taking food for their babies.  I have seen those babies venture out to sit on the bush by the feeder, waited on by mum and dad until they are old enough to get food for themselves.  One little baby pushed this and, even though I knew it could feed itself, still begged some mealworms from mum… Unless I had seen this family virtually everyday, I wouldn’t have known that was the case.

Aside, although I tend to call the sparrows my babies or the sparrow family, the correct name for a group of sparrows is a flock, but can also be called a knot, flutter, host or quarrel… I think my birds might be best described as a flutter…

Similarly, there is a single starling that has been visiting since it was a chick.  I have no idea why it has ventured here alone but it’s been incredible watching it grow and develop it’s iconic starling markings.  There have been a few scuffles between this starling and the sparrows but I’m pleased to say that in the last couple of months a peace agreement seems to have been made.  Yes, it does seem like they both give each other sly glances and they aren’t going to be best friends any time soon but on the whole it makes for a much more serene experience.  Except when the lone starling was joined by about thirty friends… It’s only happened on a couple of occasions but I did think that maybe the apocalypse had arrived… Thirty black birds descending on one small feeder less than a metre away from me, with only the window between us… The sparrows looked horrified – yes I may anthropomorphise my little babies – and because the starlings were just fighting for feeder real estate, none of them actually got any food anyway… On the last occasion, when the mob left the feeder vicinity, they joined a black cloud of other starlings and I was slightly concerned an entire murmuration might descend… thankfully they didn’t, I’m not sure the window would have stood up to that…

As well as being a great and accessible way to engage with nature, whatever the weather, bird feeders help people become more aware of their local wildlife and the types of birds that visit.  Watching them eat means I’ve got to know the different beak shapes and the different ways they use them.  Feeding birds has also been shown to change human behaviour, for example being more concerned about cats that visit the area or being more aware of a sudden increase in the number of birds.

“These human responses were in some cases tied to people’s emotions about their observations, particularly anger.”
Observations at bird feeders

If you’re thinking about getting a bird feeder, there are different options out there, some will work better than others for you and for different birds.  I currently have two bird feeders, one which is a hanging feeder that is attached to the back fence and gets filled with fat balls, and one which is stuck to my living room window and is filled with mixed seed and mealworms (it took a while to find the food that my birds like, they’re surprisingly fussy…).  I also have a couple of ceramic poppies which collect rain water, or can be filled with water in the summer.  If you’re lucky and have some privacy in your bird feeder location, you could add a camera!  I did research, it’s not ok for me to point a camera at my feeder because it takes in a large view of the pavement and street… boo!

Anyway, I hope that by touching on a couple of ways I engage with nature, I have made an argument that having a disability does not mean your interactions are inferior.  I also want to make the point that more inclusive ways of engaging with nature are more accessible to people who might not go hiking or bird watching otherwise.

Rainbows in culture

Part one and two

Having seen in previous blog posts that rainbows are not universally seen positively, it may not be so much of a shock to find that even within Europe, views have been divisive.

“Rainbow superstitions in Britain and Ireland reveal an ambivalence that is difficult to synthesize or explain.”
– The Penguin Guide to the Supersitions of Britain and Ireland, Steve Roud

Modern beliefs tend to be positive – make a wish on a rainbow, the pot of gold etc – but others are darker, with Scotland and Ireland having a pessimistic view.  A rainbow over a house was thought to be a sign of death.  Some people believe that it is unlucky to point at the moon and the stars and this extended to rainbows as well.

IMG_20190328_181747.jpg

Rainbows are an obvious choice for poetry and it doesn’t take long to find some wonderful lines:

“Be thou the rainbow to the storms of life!”
– Lord Byron

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!”
– William Wordsworth

Similarly, rainbows have featured in art for many many years, right back to 2000-4000 BCE.  However, painting a rainbow was not without controversy.  For a lot of history, there was an idea that rainbows were unpaintable and to attempt one “was often a self-conscious act of mastery – or even of hubris – and was usually seen as such by the contemporaries of those artists who dared to try.” (MacCannell)

Flags are another common place to find rainbows, most famously in the LGBT+ flag.  The original flag had eight colours:

  • Hot pink for sexuality
  • Red for life
  • Orange for healing
  • Yellow for sunlight
  • Green for nature
  • Turquoise for magic and art
  • Indigo for serenity
  • Violet for spirit

Turquoise and hot pink were removed by 1979 for cost reasons.

Rainbows have also been used to symbolise peace and unity.  Since 1921, a rainbow flag has been used to represent the international cooperative movement, with each colour having a meaning.

Today we tend to see rainbows as a scientifically understood phenomena, as awe-inspiring and as kitsch.  To minimise the depth of the rainbow and see them in an emoticon kind of way is to miss out on so much of this incredibly wonder of the natural world.  Rainbows should inspire you to stop, to stare and to wonder.  Perhaps instead of thinking them as light diffracted through a raindrop, we should think of them as miracles drawn on the sky, just for us.  After all, they are uniquely experienced and that is a gift, personalised just for you.

IMG_20190331_131221.jpg

Resources

Rainbows and mythology

Part one

Rainbows feature in a variety of types of myth, and starting with end of the world myths we find rainbows popping up in a number of seemingly disconnected cultures, including northern India, parts of Canada and Argentina.

In Judeo-Christian lore, the rainbow is associated the flood.  After the flood, God set his bow in the clouds as a “token of covenant”.  In medieval Christianity, they were depicted in art showing the apocalypse as well as as a bow (a weapon, not gift wrapping). This rainbow as a bow concept was the case elsewhere in the world, with the Sanskrit word for rainbow literally meaning ‘the bow of Indra’ (one of the Hindu gods).

“The English language cannot describe a rainbow without reference to [the bow]: the ‘bow-ness’ of the bow intractably, implausibly, indestructibly remains.”
– Daniel MacCannell

IMG_20190325_210945.jpg

Elsewhere in the world, the rainbow has been seen as part of a deity, such as a mythical belt, a necklace and so on.  Rainbows as cosmic architectures, such as those in the Norse myths, are also well known but there is also the rainbow pathway that the goddess Iris uses to move between the mortal and the heavenly worlds.

“Among the American tribes, as well as among the Aryans, the rainbow and the Milky-Way have contributed the idea of a Bridge of the Dead, over which souls must pass on the way to the other world.”
Myths and Myth-Makers, John Fiske (1873 hence language used)

Another way we can see rainbows in myth is as rainbow beings such as the snake-monster from the Mbuti people of the Democratic Republic of Congo – a man killer that creates catastrophes and generally inspires terror.  Another terrifying rainbow creature is the serpent Magalim from New Guinea who causes madness and malaria when not busy swallowing people.  Dangerous rainbow serpents can also be found in South America, including the Panare from Venezuela who use the same word to mean both rainbow and were-anaconda…

There is also the rainbow snake found in Aboriginal Australian mythology and that brings us onto the unexpected subject of dragons

Some historians suggest a link between rainbows and dragons and this is investigated in depth by Robert Blust.  He says that the dragon is the end point of a developing concept which began with rainbows and moved through the rainbow serpent to become the dragons we are more familiar with today, especially those from china.  But this link may seem counter intuitive when seen through a Western lens:

“Within the Judeo-Christian tradition the rainbow is the bow of the covenant, a sign of divine promise and hope; by contrast the dragon is a sinister relic of the pre-Christian past.”
– Robert Blust

The rainbow serpent is a giant snake whose body arches like a rainbow across the sky.  They are associated with the gift of blood, controlling the circulation of blood as well as menstrual cycles.

“The rainbow is most commonly represented in one of four ways:

As a celestial bow

As a bridge between heaven and earth

As a belt, scarf or other article of apparel of a deity

As a giant snake.

By far the most common view is that the rainbow is a giant snake which either drinks water from the Earth and sprays it over the sky (this causing it to rain), or that drinks from the sky (causing it to stop).”
– Blust

It is easy to lean into this idea given that rainbows are often associated with the beginning or end of a rain shower.  As our ancestors sought to explain and understand the world around them, natural phenomena were often personified and given the shape of a rainbow, a serpent is an obvious choice.  Understanding the rainbow as a giant snake, it’s not too far of a leap to see why it might have developed into a dragon, especially the more serpentine Chinese dragons.

Resources

Rainbows, a colourful history

Note, this is part one of three as it turned into a rather long post…  Later posts will look at mythology and superstitions around rainbows.

If you follow me on Instagram you may have noticed an abundance of rainbows.  I’m doing a little photo project that was sparked as a result of a gorgeous rainbow selection of tea and a day where I saw multiple rainbows, including one that seemed like we were driving through the base of it – spoiler, there was no gold, no leprechauns, just one Irish carer…

IMG_20190402_201135.jpg

Anyway, alongside that project, I wanted to find out more about how rainbows feature in cultures and how they have been used symbolically, as well as how our understanding of rainbows has changed over time.

One of the things I love about rainbows is how people still view them with awe and how they can bring smiles to tired faces.

If you want to know more about how rainbows are formed, then the Met Office has some brief, easy to understand information.  One of the things I love is that conditions must be just right for a rainbow to be seen, and that feels very special to me.

  • The sun needs to be behind the viewer
  • The sun needs to be low in the sky, at an angle of less than 42° above the horizon. The lower the sun in the sky the more of an arc of a rainbow the viewer will see
  • Rain, fog or some other source of water droplets must be in front of the viewer

Another aspect of rainbows is that no one can see the same one, even if someone is standing next to you, they will not see the exact rainbow you see.  This combined with the specific conditions necessary to create one makes it feel like seeing a rainbow is a personal gift.

“The rainbow that a cloudspotter sees standing in one position is never the same as that observed from another one.  The droplets that are over in the direction of the arc – perhaps a half to one and a half miles away – each sparkle a bit of sunlight into his eyes.  From the drops that fall through the sky off in some directions, it is the yellow-looking part of the spectrum that twinkles at the cloudspotter.  From those in other directions, it is the violet, etc.  This means that, should the observer change position, different raindrops will be the ones sparkling at him.  Hopefully, this will help cloudspotters accept that it is a futile and, frankly humiliating aspiration to seek the end of a rainbow.”
– The Cloudspotter’s Guide, Gavin Pretor-Pinney

Today we tend to think of rainbows having seven colours, we may remember them through a mnemonic like Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain, but the number is actually arbitrary and has changed over time.  Research suggests that the number of colours seen is about the language that person uses, if a language has fewer colour words then they will see fewer colours.

IMG_20190401_202851.jpg

As far back as 3rd to 2nd century BCE, people were trying to describe the rainbow but Aristotle was the first to give a complete description and he identified three colours.  The idea of there being three colours was justified in a number of ways including the three stages of events (beginning, middle and end), the three dimensions of space and the use of the number three in the worship of gods.

Later Newton would claim there were five colours, namely red, yellow, green, blue and violet but he would go on to add orange and indigo.  This created a seven colour scale analogous to the notes in a musical scale.  Despite this being the accepted idea today, it was considered heretical at the time.    Newton would also suggest that all of the colours of the rainbow are found in white light, a concept which provides a great metaphor for humanity.

In my next post I’ll be looking at how rainbows feature in mythology.

Resources

December’s reading

“Clouds running across the face of a waning moon.  Distant flashes of lightening.  I know what it is, a “warm front”, etc. And who cares what the weather may be? It is money that cares about weather and pays to predict it, perhaps some day to control it. And who wants a world in which weather is controlled by money?”
– Thomas Merton

December’s reading has been a little restricted.  I found it impossible to concentrate whilst I was in hospital and despite now being out, I am still very very limited in what I can eat so I’m rather tired and not sleeping well.

However, I have read (or at least started reading) The Weather Experiment by Peter Moore and The Cloudspotters Guide by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, both excellent starts for weather related reading.

Other useful resources have included the Future Learn weather course, the Met Office, Folklore Thursday and the Open Learn Surviving the Winter course.  There are also a lot of links within individual posts so if a particular topic is of interest I’d suggest you try there.  From a literature point of view, I drew a lot on my GCSE and A Level English Literature as well as my wide range of reading material.  I’m intrigued as to whether I will notice weather more when reading fiction in the future…

A website I didn’t have time to look at properly but which I think would be useful and shine a different light on weather is Living In The Weather World:

[Living in the weather world] is for researchers, teachers, students, and school children who want to build a sense of connectedness with the natural world, both the slowly changing world of plants, animals and the physical environment, and the faster changing world of the weather, as they come together into one weather-world.

Another book I haven’t read is Where The Wild Winds Are by Nick Hunt.

TV wise, Inside the Met Office and Volitile Earth (both on 4OD) were interesting, there are a large number of weather related disaster films (and don’t forget the Wizard of Oz) and these short youtube videos are also worth a watch:

There were lots of other weather related topics I wanted to look at this month but they shall wait for another time.  One of these was a post which I hoped would echo What can we learn from the fog? but with a different type of weather, probably rain.  I might return to this on a wet and windy day when I have a bit more energy.  But for now, as we enter January, we turn from rain and wind to the birds which fly through them.

Just a little proud boast; I’ve written over 82,000 words in my nature and writing project so far despite a host of challenges and am feeling pretty satisfied.  Whilst word count is irrelevant, especially for this, it does give me a sense of achievement.

Get your head in the clouds

I am reading the amazing and comprehensive The Cloudspotter’s Guide by Gavin Pretor-Pinney.  I had hoped to be able to take you on a tour of the ten main types of clouds but the hospital stay means I’m a bit behind in my reading and my learning so I’ll be focusing on the lower clouds.  That is the cumulus, cumulonimbus, status and stratocumulus.  If you’re interested in clouds and want to know about the rest of them then do buy his book and check out the Cloud Appreciation Society website.  My writings here are informed by other sources including the Future Learn Learn About Weather course which was run alongside the met office.

“Nothing in nature rivals [clouds] variety and drama; nothing matches their sublime, ephemeral beauty.”
– Pretor-Pinney

Photo32_35A

Flying through the clouds

Clouds and the sky are scattered through our language.  We talk of there being not a cloud in the sky, of having a grey cloud above us, of silver linings and blue sky thinking.  We create image after image of gods and goddesses sitting on the clouds.  But how often do most of us actually look up and see them?  We should.  Pretor-Pinney describes clouds as “nature’s poetry”, as “expressions of the atmosphere’s moods” and from a practical point, learning about clouds helps you know what the weather might do next.

One of the wonderful things about clouds is their impermanence.  They are almost always changing, transforming, becoming what they want or racing over the sky towards their next adventure.

Cumulus

A little latin comes in handy here, cumulus is the word for heap and this is a good description of a cumulus cloud.  These are like the clouds that children draw, like heaps of cotton wool scattered across the sky.

Cumulus clouds, in Hinduism and Buddhism, are the spiritual cousins of elephants. And elephants are said to have the power to bring rain so are, or were, worshipped and prayed to in order to bring the monsoon rains.

Interesting fact: a medium sized cumulus cloud ways about the same as 80 elephants.

It’s easy to forget that clouds are made up of water droplets, until it rains that is.  But we don’t need to worry here, cumulus clouds are generally associated with good weather.  It’s the cumulonimbus you need to be aware of…

Cumulonimbus

Extreme.  Destructive.  Stormy.  Violent.  That is the cumulonimbus.

It is these clouds which bring rain, hail, snow, lightening, gales, tornadoes and devastation.  They can injure and they can kill.

They can be taller than Mount Everest and can contain energy equivalent to ten Hiroshima sized bombs.

This is undoubtably the Kind of the Clouds.

This is the playground bully who didn’t need or want any friends.

Aside from the cues from the weather, you can tell a cumulonimbus by it’s size and the classic formation has a top which spreads out and looks like a blacksmith’s anvil.  Because this cloud needed more weaponry…

Interesting fact: This is the cloud that you’d be on if you were on cloud nine.  When The International Cloud Atlas was published in 1896 it was ninth on the list.  And whilst it doesn’t sound like a cloud you’d want to be anywhere near, the saying has probably come about because it is the tallest of clouds.

If you want to know what it’s like to be in one of these nasty beasts, read about William Rankin who had to eject from his plane above one of them.

Stratus

Stratus clouds seem a bit like the relation that no one really likes… They are the flat, slow moving clouds which blanket the sky and don’t give you much to look up for.  They epitomise the overcast, dreary day.  To give you a feel for them, when they form at ground level they are called fog or mist.

Stratocumulus

These are low patchy clouds with well defined bases, looking a bit like candyfloss.  They might appear as clumps and their colour varies from bright white to dark grey.  Occasionally they will bring light rain or snow.

An extreme example is the Morning Glory, a cloud which forms in Australia and which extreme cloud watchers, but more often gliders, travel great distances to see.  This cloud can be as big as Britain….!

Lots of useful links

“You can stand under my umbrella, ella, ella…”

Following all that talk of rain, I felt umbrellas would be a good next step.  One of the many ways we try to avoid nature and also, in a positively English and polite way, to poke out peoples eyes.

So here’s a few things you probably didn’t know about umbrellas:

  • The word “umbrella” comes the Latin umbra, meaning shaded or shadow
  • A collapsible umbrella from the 1st century was found in the tomb of Wang Guang
  • The oldest written record of a collapsible umbrella dates back to n all written records, the oldest reference to a collapsible umbrella dates to the year 21 AD
  • The first lightweight folding umbrella in Europe was introduced in 1710 and worked in much the same way as they do today.
  • The 19th century was a very productive stage in umbrella innovation.
  • The uptake in umbrella use in the UK may have been a contributing factor towards the lengthening of the average life.
  • In 1978 a modified umbrella was used to inject Georgi Markov with a dose of ricin.
  • In 2005, in South Africa, Brian Hahn was beaten to death with an umbrella.
  • On a slightly cheerier note, National Umbrella Day is 10th February and is apparently celebrated around the world.
  • For a very very long time umbrellas were only used by women as men who used them were considered effeminate…

If these facts have er, whet your appetite, there is a very detailed history of the umbrella on Wikipedia if you want the full story.

Bad luck

One thing a lot of us have heard at some point is that having an umbrella up inside the house is bad luck, but why might this be so?

Well, first we need to consider the symbolism of the umbrella.  Most obviously it is used in weather forecasting as an icon for rain but it is also a symbol of the Pope, representing protection.  The related parasol is a symbol of Himalayan Buddhism representing sky, protection and learning.  So, there is a certain element of sacredness associated with the umbrella.

We also find that in ancient Egypt the umbrella was a symbol of goddess Nut’s protection.  Her body covered the entire sky and important people were shaded by parasols covered in peacock feathers.  It was said that the shadow from these parasols were sacred.  Because of this association, it was considered an insult to Nut to open an umbrella inside.

Sort of related to this is the idea that as umbrellas protect you against the storms of life, opening one in your home would be an insult to the guardian spirits of your house and would cause them to get very annoyed and leave you unprotected.

Similarly, one explanation is based on pixies, goblins and fairies enjoyment of living inside upturned objects.  This would mean if you opened your umbrella they would fall out and to do so in your house would result in chaos.  The key message coming through here is that you do not want to anger the pixies, goblins, fairies, guardian spirits or sky goddesses…

Apparently umbrellas used to often be used to cover the heads of catholic priests during last rites so were associated with death and it was said that opening one inside would invite death into the household.

There is also a practical aspect to discouraging the opening of umbrellas indoors.  In around the 18th century when they were coming into use in Britain, umbrellas were a bit bulky with slightly unpredictable mechanisms as well as steel ribs.  Opening one of these indoors, in a crowded room, could easily result in poking eyes out or knocking over than expensive vase that had been in the family for years.  Not good, and especially bad if you were a visitor to the house!

You should also keep umbrellas off the table or risk more bad luck coming your way…

Useful links